“I’ve got a gun”. These were the words uttered from behind a door, where Jonathan Quinn from CES was being held hostage. It fell to six ALTO delegates to talk an unstable woman down and persuade her firstly to release Jonathan and then not to harm herself.

This was a novel and stimulating way to open the ALTO event in London in September 2016 – an interactive and thought-provoking session from Richard Mullender and his accomplice focused on making delegates really think about how to effectively communicate.

Mullender, one of a limited number of British hostage negotiation experts, explained how listening, offering your trust as a verbal bond and having a clear outcome for business meetings were all tools that could be used very effectively to get better results from meetings.

He explained how non-verbal cues could also help your case: getting into “the listening position”, which we naturally adopt when we are very interested, could put business partners at ease.

Understanding the person you are dealing with is also imperative. If they are a pragmatist, they want to know how the product you are selling works. The rest of the conversation is just window dressing.

Making notes can be an effective way of ensuring your client believes you are concerned with getting the details right, and addressing the elephant in the room should be done in a circuitous way, to enable the client to correct you or clarify how they feel on a thorny issue. For example, “Am I correct in thinking that you feel our prices are too expensive?” might be responded to with “Well, it’s more the case that other schools offer extras such as airport transfers for free”.

The summary of Mullender’s expertise was crystallised with the mock hostage situation, during which he asked six delegates to try and use a few nuggets of information about the woman hostage-taker to turn the conversation towards the outcome desired – no one being hurt.

Using the fact that she had children, and had been a loyal employee before being made redundant, were levers that could be correctly applied to make the woman realise she should not escalate a situation that was spiraling out of control because of her vulnerable and emotional state of mind.

Delegates realised it was actually very difficult to engage with the woman and offer compelling reasons to comply.

Presentation tips

After the excitement of the hostage negotiation role-play, good and tangible advice was offered to delegates in the second half of the day on how to present in a room. From useful direction on the maximum number of slides and font size allowed on a Powerpoint screen, to expert insight on how to handle eye contact with the audience while delivering a presentation, Michael Comyn shared how to deliver “Fearless Communication”.

A radio broadcaster and NLP practitioner, Comyn also had good insights on how to guide and lead an audience, ensuring they were on your side.

Referencing Maya Angelou, he said, “People remember how you made them feel, not what you say”, echoing Mullender’s earlier mantra that an end goal is imperative.

“What is a realistic objective that the audience will learn? What information will they retain from your presentation?” asked Comyn.

Any session delivered to an audience should have this end goal in mind and be imparted with a minimum use of slides. As for asking, “Does anyone have any questions?” Don’t bother – instead, it’s better to foster a collegial environment from the outset whereby people will ask questions if they have them.

Comyn also delivered a similar presentation to mid-manager level delegates in the morning, offering them the chance to build up their arsenal of skills as they progress in our industry.